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The Fear of Hell is the Beginning of Wisdom

Advent Reflections from the Master of Thomism
Part I: On Death
Part II: On Judgment
Part III: On Heaven


Hell. If there is one doctrine that is most offensive to the ears of fallen man and in particular modern man, it is this doctrine. If there is one doctrine that is not preached anymore, it is this doctrine. In this final installment of the four Last Things, I will speak on this most weighty subject. I will strive to do so by God’s grace in a manner in which is both scholastically rigorous and practically applicable. All Glory to Jesus Christ for his saving power and grace.

Why speak on the subject of Hell?

What is man and what is he made for? Perhaps you have at one moment in your life thought about such a question. In the Aristo-Thomistic sense, we are rational animals composed of corporal bodies and rational souls. We are made for total union with God through beatific charity. However, we have the freewill choice to love Him or reject him. Jesus Christ, in His great obedience to the Father and love for Man, died on the cross to satisfy the justice of God that was wounded by sin. He gives us His grace through the Sacraments in order to become Saints. However, unlike the heretical notion of Calvin, or the erroneous opinion of modern thinkers, the justified are not guaranteed final perseverance. According to Traditional Catholic teaching, we do not believe in the doctrine known as “once saved always saved” or the Calvinistic doctrine of “Perseverance of the Saints.” Rather, Christ’s Church teaches the reality of cooperating with his grace as well as the real danger of falling from grace. For those who are not in a state of sanctifying grace through mortal sin, the only place where one goes when meeting death and being unrepentent is hell.

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange says the following concerning the need to discuss the existence of Hell.

Three reasons lead us to speak at length concerning hell. First, there is today an unwillingness to preach on this subject, and therefore people often forget revealed truth that is very salutary. They do not give attention to the truth that the fear of hell is the beginning of wisdom and the beginning of conversion. They forget that, in this sense, hell has saved many souls.

Secondly, there are in the world many superficial objections to this teaching, objections that seem to some believers more true than the traditional answers. Why? Because they have never entered deeply into these answers. It is easy to fasten on some superficial objection, and it is difficult to see clearly a reply involving the depths of soul or the immeasurable height of God’s justice. To understand these answers we need more maturity and penetration.

An illustration. A priest one day asked one of his friends, a lawyer, to aid in a dialogue conference, by offering objections against the teaching of the Church on hell. The lawyer presented the common objections in a brilliant fashion under a popular point of view which captured the imagination. Since the priest was not sufficiently prepared, the objections seemed to be stronger than the answers, and the answers themselves seemed to be merely verbal. They did not capture the imagination, nor did they lead sufficiently to the notions of mortal sin without repentance, of obstinacy, of the state of termination, so different from the state of the way. Neither did they lead sufficiently to the notion of God’s infinite justice. Hence we must insist on all these points, since the dogma about hell helps us to appreciate by contrast the value of salvation. Similarly we do not know the value of justice unless we examine what is meant by a great injustice, actual or threatened. Our Lord illumined St. Theresa on the beauty of heaven, but only after He had shown her the place which she would have had in hell had she continued on the road whereon she had already made some steps.[1]

We will proceed now to discuss the following theological topics. First, we will look at the reality of hell. Second, the eternality of Hell. And finally, we will look at the inequality of the punishments of Hell.

The Reality of Hell

The Following analysis of the doctrine is taken from the Traditional Theological Manuals that were written and taught prior to the Second Vatican Council and the proceeding crisis. The following doctrines have also been given their particular theological note from these revered manuals, and are now being presented for the education and benefit of the faithful.

The souls of those who die in the condition of personal grievous sin (Mortal Sin) enter Hell (De fide).[2]

What is Hell? Hell is a place or state of eternal punishment inhabited by those rejected by God. Mortal sin is what leads souls to this place or state. The Council of Trent taught that “those who commit infidelity…fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, liers with mankind (Homosexuals), thieves, covetous, drunkards, railers, extortioners, and all others who commit deadly sins” lose sanctifying grace. According to the Roman Catechism, the damned are eternally deprived of the beatific vision. They will not receive any consolations in hell, escape from the pain of hellfire, or have any company except for the demons that tempted them.

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange defines hell as the following:

Hell signifies properly the state of the damned souls, of demons first, then of men who die in the state of mortal sin and are consequently condemned to suffer eternally. Secondly, it signifies also the place where condemned souls are detained.[3]

In the past and in our own current day, we find many false sects and philosophical systems which deny the existence of Hell. These heresies are taught by the proponents of the view that teach the total annihilation of the godless after death or after the General Judgment (annihilationism), and also by all who deny personal immortality (materialism).

Commenting on the false sects, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange states:

The existence of hell was denied in the third century by Arnobius who, following the Gnostics, held that those who are reprobated are also annihilated. This error was renewed by the Socinians of the sixteenth century. In ancient times, further, the Origenists, especially in the fourth century, denied the eternity of punishment in hell, because they held that all the reprobate, angels and men, would finally be converted. This error was taken up again by liberal spirits, particularly among the Protestants. The rationalists say the eternity of suffering is in contradiction to the wisdom of God, to His mercy, and to His justice. They imagine that suffering must be proportioned to the time necessary for committing the fault, and not to the gravity of the perpetual state wherein the soul finds itself after it has left the world with grievous and unrepented sin.[4]

The Athanasian Creed famously declares: “But those who have done evil will go into eternal fire” (D 40).[5] Pope Benedict XII declared in the Dogmatic Constitution “Benedictus Deus”: “According to God’s general ordinance, the souls of those who die in a personal grievous sin descend immediately into hell, where they will be tormented by the pains of hell” (D 531; Cf. D 429, 464, 693, 835, 840).

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange:

The Athanasian Creed and many councils affirm as a dogma of faith the existence of heaven, the eternity of punishment, both of loss and of pain, and likewise the inequality of suffering proportioned to the gravity of the faults committed and left unrepented.[6]

He then turns to the immediate sources of Revelation, Scripture and Tradition and beings to draw proofs of Hell from both. He states:

Let us first see what Holy Scripture itself teaches on this point. Its teaching prepares us to understand better the doctrine of purgatory, where there is the certitude of salvation, and further the doctrine of eternal beatitude. Darkness and evil show in their own manner the value of eternal light, of the sanctity that cannot be lost. The Latin word infernum (hell) comes from infernus and signifies dark places beneath the earth. In the Old Testament the corresponding term, sheol, signifies the place of the dead in general, good or bad. We are not surprised at this, since before the ascension of Jesus Christ no soul could enter heaven. In this same sense we speak of the descent of Jesus into hell. But in the New Testament the hell of the damned is often called Gehenna, which signifies the Valley of Hinnom, a ravine to the south of Jerusalem where people were accustomed to dump refuse, and even corpses. Fires burned there almost continually, to consume trash. Hence the word, after Isaias, came to express the real hell: hell which lasts forever, a worm which will not die, a fire which cannot be quenched.

Hell in the Old Testament

Some assert that hell is something that was not taught by writers of the Old Testament but rather was something only taught by the New Testament. In the case of the Modernists, hell is nothing more than a teaching of negative religious sentiments of some and is not to be taken as an actual place or state. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange shows how this important doctrine is clearly shown in the Old Testament.

In a learned article on hell, M. Richard, speaks of those texts of the Old Testament which prove the existence of hell in the strict sense. Before the time of the prophets, he notes, the condition of the wicked after death remained very obscure although ultramundane sanctions are often affirmed.

For example, by Ecclesiastes:  ‘Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is all man.’ ‘For all these God will bring thee into judgment.’

To the great prophets God began to show clear perspectives of the future life. We have already cited some of these texts when speaking of the Last Judgment. Isaias lays open a great prophetic vision of the world beyond. It is the restoration of Israel for all eternity, with new heavens and a new earth. ‘All flesh shall come to adore before My face, saith the Lord, and they shall go out and see the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against Me. Their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be a loathsome sight to all flesh.’ All commentators see in this text an affirmation of the last judgment and under a symbolic form that of eternal hell. This last text is cited in St. Mark by Jesus Himself, and in St. Luke by St. John the Baptist.

Daniel says more clearly: ‘Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some unto life everlasting, and others unto reproach, to see it always.’ Thus the Old Testament, for the first time, declares the resurrection of sinners to meet a judgment of condemnation.

The Book of Wisdom, after describing the sufferings reserved to the wicked after death, continues: ‘The just shall live for evermore.’ It adds: ‘For to him that is little mercy is granted, but the mighty shall be mightily tormented.’ It says of the wicked one: ‘He returneth to the same out of which he was taken, when his life which was lent him shall be called for again.’

Ecclesiasticus speaks in the same sense: ‘Humble thy spirit very much, for the vengeance on the flesh of the ungodly is fire and worms.’ In the Second Book of Machabees we read that the seven brothers, martyrs, were sustained in their sufferings by the thought of eternal life. They say to their judge: ‘The King of the world will raise us up . . . in the resurrection of eternal life; . . . but thou by the judgment of God shalt receive just punishment for thy pride.’

All these texts of the Old Testament speak of hell in the proper sense. Many of them affirm the inequality of punishments proportioned to the gravity of the faults committed and unrepented.

We see that in these later Books that the Old Testament, a clear assertion regarding hell and its eternal punishment of the godless is made. According to Dn. 12:2, they will rise again ‘unto reproach, to see it always.’ According to the book of  Judith 16:20, ‘the Lord the Almighty will take revenge on the enemies of Israel and will persecute them.’[7] 

Hell in the New Testament

The Master of Thomism builds off of the Old Testament by turning next to the references of Hell contained in the New Testament.

The Precursor said to those who were guilty: ‘Ye brood of vipers, who hath showed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance.’ Again: ‘There shall come one mightier than I, . . . whose fan is in His hand, and He will purge His floor and will gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Jesus announces simultaneously the eternal salvation for the good and Gehenna for the wicked. He begins by exhorting to penance. The scribes say of Him: ‘By the prince of devils He casteth out devils.’ His reply is: ‘All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and the blasphemies wherewith they shall blaspheme. But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost shall never have forgiveness, but shall be guilty of an everlasting sin.’ Jesus commands fraternal charity, and the avoidance of luxury and lust lest the body be cast into eternal fire. At Capharnaum, after admiring the faith of the centurion, Jesus announces the conversion of the Gentiles, whereas certain Jews remain unbelieving and obstinate: ‘They shall be cast out into the exterior darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Jesus warns the apostles against the fear of martyrdom, saying: ‘Fear ye not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ All this doctrine is summed up by St. Mark: ‘If thy hand scandalize thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed than having two hands to go into hell, into unquenchable fire, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished.’ The doctrine is taught also in the parables, that of the cockle, that of the royal marriage, that of the wise and foolish virgins, that of the talents.

The same doctrine we find in the maledictions of the hypocritical Pharisees: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, . . . blind guides, . . . you are like to whitened sepulchers, which . . . are full of . . . all filthiness; . . . you serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell?’ Jesus speaks still more clearly in the discourse on the end of the world and the last judgment: ‘Then shall the King say to them that shall be on His right hand: Come ye blessed of My Father, . . . for I was hungry, and you gave Me to eat…. Then He shall say to them also that shall be on His left hand: Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me not to eat: I was thirsty . . . I was a stranger . . . naked … sick and in prison, and you did not visit Me…. And these shall go into everlasting punishment, but the just into life everlasting.’ Such is the last sentence, without appeal, and without end. The word “eternal” in regard to fire is used in its proper sense, because it is opposed to eternal life. The parallelism in the two instances shows that “eternal” is used in the proper sense of the word.

The Gospel of St. John speaks repeatedly of the opposition between eternal life and eternal loss. ‘He that believeth not the Son shall not see life.’ To the obstinate Pharisees Jesus says: ‘You shall die in your sin. Whither I go, you cannot come.’ ‘Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. Now the servant abideth not in the house forever, but the son abideth forever.’ ‘If anyone abideth not in Me, he shall be cast forth as a branch and shall wither; and they shall gather him up and cast him into the fire, and he burneth.’

The epistles of St. Paul,  too, announce to the just souls eternal life and to the obstinate in evil eternal death. ‘Those who do the works of the flesh shall not enter the kingdom of God.’ These are those who perish. There are two irreconcilable cities, that of Christ and that of Belial. These are those who are condemned forever. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ St. Peter announces to the false prophets that they are going to eternal loss. The Epistle of St. Jude speaks of eternal chains. The Epistle of St. James threatens judgment without mercy on him who does not do mercy. Wicked men, without heart for the poor, amass treasures of anger for the last day.

Lastly, the Apocalypse contrasts the victory of Christ in the heavenly Jerusalem with the damnation of all those who will be thrown into the abyss of fire and sulfur. This eternal damnation is called the second death. It is the privation of divine life, of the vision of God, in a place of eternal punishment, where those will be tormented by fire who wear the sign of the beast and hence are excluded from the book of life. This is the doctrine already announced by the great prophets and in particular by Isaias. From the time of these prophets to the Apocalypse the revelation about eternal hellfire never ceased to become more precise, just as the doctrine of eternal life became more precise. Among these punishments, we find those of loss, of fire, of inequality in pain, of eternal duration. Mortal sin unrepented has left the soul in a habitual state of rebellion against an infinite good.[8]

After Holy Scripture, the Fathers confirm this dogma of hell is part of the deposit of faith. Ott states about the Fathers:

The Fathers unanimously attest to the reality of hell. St. Ignatius of Antioch, the person who “corrupts the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified, by evil teaching, will go into the unquenchable fire; and so will the person who listens to him” (Eph. 16:2). St. Justin bases the punishment of hell on the idea of the Divine justice, which does not allow those who transgress the law to escape free (Apol. II 9). Cf. Apol. I 8, 4; 21, 6; 28. Martyrium Polycarpi 2, 3; 11, 2. St. Irenaeus, Adv. haer. IV 28, 2.[9]

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange comments on the Patristic witness:

Before the third century, before the controversy with the Origenists, the Fathers teach the existence and the eternity of the pains of hell. The martyrs often say they do not fear temporal fire, but only the eternal fire.

From the third century to the fifth most of the Fathers combat the error of the Origenists on the non-eternity of the pains of hell. Among them we may cite particularly St. Methodius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Epiphanius, St. Basil, St. Chrysostom, St. Ephrem, St. Cyprian, St. Jerome, and especially St. Augustine. In the mind of all these Fathers the affirmation of the final conversion of demons and of reprobated man is contrary to revelation. In their minds a converted demon is an impossibility. The same holds good of a condemned soul. In the fifth century the controversy ended with the condemnation of this error of Origen at the synod of Constantinople, confirmed by Pope Vigilius. The Fathers often cite the words of Isaias, recalled by Jesus: “Their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished.” The Origenist controversy served to make precise the meaning of these words of the Gospel.  St. Augustine in particular shows that the word “eternal” is not to be taken here in a wide sense, because of its opposition to “eternal life” where the word “eternal” is used in the proper sense of the word.[10]

The Nature of the Punishment of Hell

Hell is a place for punishment. Some modern theologians today are trying very much so to distance the faith from this teaching. Some are even asserting that there is a good reason to hope that no soul is in hell. This view however renders the dogmas useless. However, the scholastic manuals and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange cut through the novel theological mess and present the traditional Catholic on the subject with clarity and precision. According to Ott:

Scholasticism distinguishes a double element in the punishment of hell: the poena damni (pain of loss) and the poena sensus (pain of sense).The former corresponds to the aversion from God inherent in grievous sin, the latter the conversion to the creature. The poena damni, which is the essence of the punishment of hell, consists in exclusion from the Beatific Vision. Cf. Mt. 25:41: “Depart from me you cursed!” Mt. 25:12: “I know you not!” 1 Cor. 6:9: “Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God” (cf. Luke 13:27; 14:24; Apoc. 22:15. St. Augustine, Enchir. 112).

Poena Sensus consists in the suffering which is caused by outside material things (it is also called the positive punishment of hell). The Holy Scriptures speak often of the fire of hell, to which the damned are consigned; they describe hell as a place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth—a picture of sorrow and of despair.[11]

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange further explains the poena damni. In so doing he expounds, the very nature of the loss sensed by the condemned soul, the severity of the pain experienced in this punishment, and the interior contradiction in the soul. Here we include an extensive quotation of the Master’s analysis:

The dogma of hell shows us the immense depths of the human soul, absolute distinction between evil and good, against all the lies invented to suppress this distinction. It shows us also, by contrast, the joys of conversion and eternal beatitude.

The Latin word, damnum, which we translate by “loss,” signifies damage. The pain of loss means the essential and principal suffering due to unrepented sin. This pain of loss is the privation of the possession of God, whereas that of sense is the effect of the afflictive action of God. The first corresponds to guilt as turning away from God, whereas the second corresponds to guilt as turning toward something created.

We note, in passing, that infants who die without baptism do not feel the absence of the beatific vision as a loss, because they do not know that they were supernaturally destined to the immediate possession of God. We speak here only of that pain of loss which is conscious, which is inflicted on adults condemned for personal sin, for mortal sin unrepented.

The Nature of Loss

It consists essentially, as we have said, in the privation of the beatific vision and of all good that flows therefrom. Man, who is supernaturally destined to see God face to face, to possess Him eternally, loses that right when he turns from God by mortal sin unrepented. He remains eternally separated from God, not only as his last supernatural end, but also as his natural end, because each mortal sin is indirectly against the natural law, which obliges us to obey every command which God lays on us.

The pain of loss brings with it the privation of all good which arises from the beatific vision: that is, the privation of charity, of the love of God, of the immeasurable joys of heaven, of the company of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the angels and the saints, of souls that live in God, of all virtues, and of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit which remain in heaven.

The Council of Florence teaches clearly that, whereas the blessed enjoy the immediate vision of the divine essence, the damned are deprived of this vision. Scripture too affirms the same truth explicitly[.]…

Theological reasoning, as we have seen, explains these assertions of Scripture by the very nature of mortal sin followed by final impenitence. A man who dies in this state is turned away from God. After death, such a sin cannot be remitted. The soul of the sinner who freely and definitively has turned away from God stays eternally in that state. Refusal fixed by obstinacy, refusal of sovereign good which contains eminently all other goods, is punished by the loss of all good.

The Severity of this Pain

The pain of loss, the consequence of final impenitence, consists in an immense void which will never be filled, in an eternal contradiction which is the fruit of the hatred of God, in despair, in perpetual remorse without repentance, in hate of one’s neighbor, in envy, in a grudge against God which is expressed by blasphemy.

Eternal privation of God is hard for us to conceive here on earth. Why? Because the soul here on earth has not a sufficient consciousness of its own immeasurable depth, a depth which only God can fill. Sense goods, on the contrary, captivate us successively, one after the other. Gluttony and pride hinder us from understanding, practically and really, that God is our last end, that He is Sovereign Good. Our inclination to truth, goodness, and beauty supreme is often offset by inferior attractions. We do not as yet have a burning hunger for the only bread that can sate the soul.

But when the soul is separated from the body, it loses all these inferior goods which hindered it from understanding its own spirituality and destiny. It sees itself now as the angel does, as a spiritual substance, incorruptible and immortal. It sees that its intelligence was made for truth, above all for the Supreme Truth, that its will was made to love and will the good.

The obstinate soul now attains full consciousness of its own immeasurable depth, realizes that God alone, seen face to face, can fill it, sees also that this void will never be filled. Father Monsabre vividly expresses this awful truth: “The damned soul, arrived at the term of its road, should repose in the harmonious plenitude of its being, but it is turned away from God, is fixed upon creatures. It refused the supreme good, even in the last moment of its state of trial. Hence supreme good says to it: ‘Begone’ at the very moment when, having no other good, its nature springs up to seize this supreme good. Hence it departs from its light, from infinite love, from the Father, from the divine Spouse of souls. The sinner, having denied all this on earth, is now in the night, in the void. He is in exile, repudiated, condemned. And justice can but approve.”

Interior Contradiction

The obstinate soul is still, by its very nature, inclined to love God more than itself, just as the hand loves the body more than itself, and hence exposes itself naturally to preserve that body. This natural inclination has indeed been weakened by sin, but it continues to exist in the condemned soul. Father Monsabre says: “The condemned soul loves God, has hunger for God. It loves Him in order to satisfy itself.”

On the other hand, the soul has a horror of God, an aversion which comes from unrepented sin which still holds it captive. Continuing to judge according to its unregulated inclination, it has not only lost charity, but it has acquired a hatred of God. Thus it is lacerated by an interior contradiction. It is carried toward the source of its natural life, but it detests the just judge, and expresses its rage by blasphemy. Often the Gospel repeats: “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The damned, knowing by a continual experience the effects of divine justice, as a consequence have hatred of God. St. Theresa defines the demon as “he who does not love.” We can say the same of those obstinate Pharisees, to whom Jesus says: “You shall die in your sin.” This hatred of God manifests the total depravity of the will. The damned are continually in the act of sin, though these acts are no longer demeritorious, because the end of merit and demerit has come.

Utter despair is the terrible consequence of the eternal loss of all good. And the damned fully understand they have lost all these goods, and that by their own fault. In the Book of Wisdom we read:

“Then shall the just stand with great constancy against those that have afflicted them…. (The wicked) seeing it shall be troubled with terrible fear and shall be amazed . . . saying within themselves . . .: ‘These are they whom we had some time in derision and for a parable of reproach…. Behold how they are numbered among the children of God and their lot is among the saints. Therefore we have erred from the way of truth, and the light of justice hath not shined unto us…. We wearied ourselves in the way of destruction…. What hath pride profited us?”

The extent of despair in the damned souls arises from their full knowledge of a good which can never be realized. If they could but hope to see the end of their evils! But this end will never come. If a mountain lost daily one tiny stone, a day would come when the mountain would no longer exist, since its size is limited. But the succession of centuries has no limit.

Perpetual remorse comes from the voice of conscience, which repeats that they refused to listen while there was yet time. They cannot indeed erase from their mind the first principles of the moral order, a distinction between good and evil. But conscience recalls sin after sin: “I was hungry, and you gave Me not to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me not to drink.”

But the soul is incapable of changing its remorse into penance, its tortures into expiation. St. Thomas explains: “It regrets its sin, not as guilt, but only as the cause of its suffering. It remains captive to its sin and judges practically according to an inclination which is forever distorted.”

Hence the condemned soul is incapable of contrition, even attrition, because even attrition supposes hope, and enters upon the road of obedience and humility. The blood of Christ no longer descends into the condemned soul to make his heart contrite and humble. As the liturgy of the office of the dead says: “In hell there is no redemption.” Repentance rises above remorse, as the repentant thief rises above Judas. Remorse tortures, penance delivers. “The obstinate soul,” says Father Lacordaire, “no longer turns toward God. It scorns forgiveness even in the abyss into which it has fallen. It throws itself against God, with all that it sees, all that it knows, all that it feels. Can God come to it in spite of its will? Can hate and blasphemy embrace divine love? Would this be justice? Shall heaven open for Nero as it did for St. Louis? Impenitence before death, crowned by impenitence after death – this should be the passport to eternal bliss!

Hatred of God involves hatred of neighbor. As the blessed love one another, the damned hate one another. In hell there is no love, only envy and isolation. Condemned souls wish their own condemnation to be universal.”

Eternally rebellious against everything, they long for annihilation, not in itself, but as cessation of suffering. In this sense Jesus says of Judas: “It were better for him if that man had not been born.”

Buried in boundless misery, the condemned soul has no desire of relief. Inexpressible anger finds vent in blasphemy. “He shall gnash with his teeth and pine away, the desire of the wicked shall perish.” Tradition applies to him these words of the psalm: “The pride of them that hate Thee ascendeth continually.” Such a soul has refused supreme good and has found extreme sorrow. It has found despair without hope. Each and every condemned soul repeats, each on his own level: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” “The lost soul does not live. It is not dead. It dies without cessation, because it is forever far away from God, the author of life.

The condemned, says St. Thomas, suffer unchangeably the highest possible evil. They cannot in hell even demerit, much less merit. They are no longer voyagers. They sin indeed, but they do not demerit, just as the blessed perform acts of virtue, but no longer merit. Their state, if we consider only the pain of loss, is an abyss of misery, just as inexpressible as the glory of which it is the privation, as great as the possession of God which they have lost forever.

This condition, by its abysmal contrast, illumines the measureless value of the beatific vision and of all benefits that follow therefrom. But on earth we do not understand perfectly what the damned have lost. This perfect understanding is reserved to those who have unmediated vision of the divine essence, and the measureless joy which follows that vision. Yet faith too furnishes a parallel. Those who have a firm faith, and are continually faithful to it — they, and they alone, realize what measureless good is lost when faith is lost.[12]

The Pain of Sense

After the pain of loss, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange then speaks on the poena sensus (pain of sense). Many more people are familiar with this pain in a general sense, for when most think about hell, the physical pains are what many think of. Again, today many modern thinkers are trying to downplay the reality of this traditional teaching. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange again, in his ardent love for the salvation of souls, expounds the Traditional Catholic teaching on this matter.

Besides the pain of loss hell inflicts also a pain of sense. We shall speak here of the existence of this pain, of what it is according to Scripture, of the nature of the fire in hell, and of its mode of action.

The Testimony of Scripture

The pain of loss is clearly affirmed in the Gospel: “Rather fear Him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This pain follows, as St. Thomas says. The existence of this pain comes from the truth that mortal sin not only turns man away from God, but turns him also to a created good preferred to God. Mortal sin, therefore, deserves a double suffering, first, the privation of God, secondly, the affliction which comes from creatures. The body, too, which has taken part in sin and has found in sin a forbidden joy, must share the suffering of the soul.

In what does the pain of sense consist? Scripture tells us by describing hell as a dark prison, as a place of tears and gnashing of teeth. Further, it speaks of fire and sulphur.

In these descriptions two connected ideas always recur; that of imprisonment, and the pain of fire. Theologians insist as much on the one as on the other, because each explains the other. We read: “The king said to the waiters: Bind his hands and feet and cast him into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth…. The hell of unquenchable fire.”[13]

The Eternality of Hell

The punishment of Hell lasts for all eternity (De fide).


The Caput Firmiter of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declares: ‘Those (the rejected) will receive a perpetual punishment with the devil.’ (D 429. Cf. D 40, 835, 840). A Synod at Constantinople (543) rejected the Apocatastasis doctrine of Origen (D 211).

While Origen denied the eternity of hell-punishment altogether, H. Schell (1906) limited it to those who sin “with raised hand,” that is, from the disposition of hatred for God, and who persist in this disposition in the other world.

Holy Writ frequently emphasises the eternal duration of hell-punishment by speaking of it as an “eternal reproach” (Dn. 12:2: cf. Wis. 4:19); an “eternal fire” (Judith 16:21; Mt. 18:8; 25:41; Judith 7), an “everlasting punishment” (Mt. 25:46), an “eternal punishment in destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9). That the word “eternal” is not to be understood in the sense of a duration which is indeed long, but limited, is proved by parallel expressions like “unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:12; Mk. 9:43), or Hell, “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished” (Mk. 9:45 et seq.), as well as by the contrast of “everlasting punishment”—“Life everlasting” in Mt. 25:46. According to Apoc. 14 (19:3), “the smoke of their torments (of the damned) shall ascend up for ever and ever,” that is, without end. Cf. Apoc. 20:10.  The “restitution of all things” announced in Acts 3:21, does not refer to the lot of the damned, but to the renewal of the worlds which is to take place on the coming-again of Christ.

The Fathers before Origen unanimously affirm the eternal duration of the punishment of hell. Cf. St. Ignatius, Eph. 16:2; St. Justin, Apol. I 28, 1. Martyrium Polycarpi 2, 3; 2: St. Irenaeus, Adv. haer. IV 28, 2; Tertullian, De poenit. 12. Origen’s denial proceeded from the Platonic doctrinal opinion that the purpose of all punishment is the improvement of the delinquent. Origen was followed by St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Didymus of Alexandria and Evagrius Ponticus. St. Augustine defends the endless duration of hell-punishment against the Origenists and against “the merciful ones” (St. Ambrose), who, in view of the Divine mercy, taught the restoration of Christians who died in mortal sin (Cf. De civ. Dei XXI 23; Ad Orosium 6, 7; Enchir. 112).

On the ground of the teaching of Revelation it is to be inferred, that the will of the damned is immovably hardened in evil and is, therefore, inaccessible to any true repentance. The reason is that God refuses all further grace to the damned (Cf. S. th. 1 II 85, 2 ad 3; Suppl. 98, 2, 5, 6).[14]

Eternal Hell and the Divine Perfections

Here we provide another extended quotation of Garrigou-Lagrange’s penetrating analysis:

Objections have often been made that the perpetuity of suffering, perpetuity of divine punishments, is opposed to the perfection of divine justice because suffering should be proportioned to faults. If sin lasts only a moment, how shall it merit eternal punishment? Further, punishments, which should vary with the sins punished, would be equal, because all would be eternal. Finally, all punishment would be much greater than the joy found in the sin.

St. Thomas answers: “Suffering is proportioned, not to the duration of sin, but to its gravity. A deed of assassination, which lasts a few minutes, merits death or life imprisonment. A momentary act of betrayal merits permanent exile. But mortal sin has a gravity without measure. Further, it remains as a habitual disorder, in itself irreparable, which merits punishment without end.”

Secondly, inequality in punishment remains. Though equal in duration, pains are eternally proportioned to their gravity.

Thirdly, punishment is proportioned, not to the false joy found in sin, but to the offense against God.

The objection continues: But, if what religion tells us is true, then divine justice demands the annihilation of the sinner, whose ingratitude cancels the benefit of existence.

Divine revelation alone can enlighten us here. Revelation says, not that the damned are to be annihilated, but that they are to be punished eternally. God could of course annihilate, but He does not. What He created, He also preserves. He raises the body to life. Further, if every mortal sin were punished by annihilation, all sins would be equally punished. St. Thomas says: “He that sins against God who gives him existence merits indeed to lose that existence. Nevertheless, if we consider the disorder, more or less grave, of the fault committed, and then the affliction due to it, we find that the proper punishment is not the loss of existence, because this is presupposed for merit or demerit, and therefore is not to be corrupted by the disorder of sin.”

Let us listen to these admirable words of Father Lacordaire: “The obstinate sinner wishes his own annihilation, because annihilation would deliver him from God, the just judge. God would be thus constrained to undo what He has done, and that which He has made to last forever. The universe is not meant to perish. Shall, then, a soul perish simply because it does not wish to acknowledge God? No. A soul, the most precious work of the Creator, will live on forever. You can soil that soul, but you cannot destroy it. God, whose justice you have challenged, turns even lost souls into images of His law, into heralds of His justice.”

The Origenists maintained that the eternity of suffering is opposed to infinite mercy, always ready to pardon.

Let us listen to St. Thomas’ reply. “God in Himself is mercy without bounds, but this mercy is regulated by wisdom, which forbids mercy to demons and to demonized men. Yet even on these mercy is still exercised, not to put an end to their sufferings, but to punish them less than their merits demand.”

Again: “If mercy were not mingled with justice, the damned would suffer still more. All God’s ways are mercy and justice. Certain souls exalt God’s mercy, others manifest His justice. And justice enters in the second place, when divine mercy has been scorned. Even then it intervenes, not to remove the suffering, but to render it less heavy and painful.”

Further, this objection supposes that the damned implore the mercy of God and cannot obtain it. The truth is that the condemned soul does not ask for pardon and judges always according to its culpable inclination. The only road to God is that of humility and obedience, and such a soul, proud and obstinate, refuses this road.

But, insists the unbeliever, God cannot will suffering for its own sake, because it is an evil. And if He wills it as correction, the pain inflicted should not be eternal, it should have an end. And suffering, since it is not founded on the nature of things, is accidental, and hence should not be eternal.

The Angelic Doctor examines also this objection. “Medicinal suffering ordained for the correction of those who are guilty, is indeed temporary. But death and lifelong imprisonment are punitive sufferings, not meant for the correction of him who is thus punished. They become medicinal, indeed, but only for others, who are thus turned away from crime. In this sense hell has saved many souls. The fear of hell is the beginning of wisdom.”

An objection: Pain, being contrary to nature, cannot be eternal. St. Thomas answers: “Pain is contrary to the soul’s nature, but it is in harmony with the soul as soiled by unrepented mortal sin. As this sin, being a permanent disorder, lasts forever, the pain due to the sin will also last forever.”

St. Thomas proceeds: “Eternal punishment manifests God’s inalienable right to be loved above all else. God, good and merciful, has His delight, not in the suffering of the damned, but in His own unequaled goodness. The elect, beholding the radiance of God’s supreme justice, are thereby led to thank Him for their own salvation. ‘God, willing to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction, that He might show the riches of His glory in the vessels of mercy which He hath prepared unto glory.’”

Infinite goodness is the source both of mercy and of justice: of mercy, because it is essentially self-communicative, of justice, because it has an inalienable right to be loved by all creatures.

What created hell? God’s justice, God’s power, God’s wisdom, God’s love. Such is Dante’s inscription on the gate of hell: “Through me the way into the doleful City / through me the way into the pain eternal / through me the way to people lost to pity. Justice did move Creator mine supernal / made me that power divine by evil hated / wisdom supreme and first love sempiternal.”

Let Lacordaire conclude: “Had justice alone created the abyss, there might be remedy. But it is love, the first love sempiternal, which made hell. This it is which banishes hope. Were I condemned by justice, I might flee to love. But if I am condemned by love, whither can I turn?

Such is the fate of the damned. Love, that gave His blood for them – this Love, this same Love, must now curse them.”

Just think! ‘Tis God who came down to you, who took on your own nature, who spoke your language, healed your wounds, raised your dead to life. ‘Tis God who died for you on a cross. And shall you still be permitted to blaspheme and mock, to enjoy to the full your voluptuousness? No. Deceive not yourselves: love is not a farce. It is God’s love which punishes, God’s crucified love. It is not justice that is without mercy it is love. Love is life or death. And if that love is God’s love, then love is either eternal life or eternal death.[15]

Inequality of Punishment

The punishment of the damned is proportioned to each ones guilt (Sent. communis).[16]

Ott states:

The Union Councils of Lyons and of Florence declared that the souls of the damned are punished with unequal punishments (poenis tamen disparibus puniendas) (D 464, 693). This is probably intended to assert not merely a specific difference in the punishment of original sin (poena damni) and of personal sins (poena damni and poena sensus), but also a difference in the degree of punishment for personal sins.

Jesus threatens the inhabitants of Corazain and Bethsaida, on account of their slowness to repent, with a stricter judgment than the dwellers in Tyre and Sidon (Mt. 11:22). The Scribes are to be subject to a particularly strict judgment (Luke 20:47).

St. Augustine teaches: “In their wretchedness the lot of some of the damned will be more tolerable than that of others” (Enchir. III). Justice demands that the punishment be commensurate with the guilt.[17]


Degrees of the pains of the damned are equal as far as duration is concerned, since they are eternal, but they differ very much in degrees of rigor. God will render to each one according to his works. …”The wicked servant, who knew the will of his master and has not done it, will receive a greater number of stripes. He who did not know that will, and has done things worthy of chastisement, will receive fewer stripes.”

We read in the Apocalypse: “As much as she hath glorified herself and lived in delicacies, so much torment and sorrow give ye to her.” Already the Book of Wisdom had said: “The mighty shall be mightily tormented.”

Further, it is clear that punishment must be proportioned to the gravity of the fault. Faults differ in gravity and in number, hence the sufferings of hell must be unequal in their rigor. The avaricious will not be punished in the same manner as the voluptuous. We may say that the most guilty are at the bottom of hell, though we can but conjecture the place of hell.

Can there be mitigation of the accidental pain due to venial sins, and of that due to the mortal sins, forgiven but not expiated? Many theologians admit this position as probable, because this accidental pain is in itself temporary. Thus St. Thomas says: “It is not improper to say that the pains of hell, so far as they are accidental, may diminish up to the day of the last judgment.”

We saw above that, by divine mercy, the damned suffer less than they merit. Nevertheless, the pain of loss, even the smallest, surpasses immensely all the sufferings of this world. Theologians commonly admit this also for the pain of sense, since it is eternal, without consolation, and in a soul which has already the pain of loss.

A very probable position, upheld by many theologians, is that God will not let die in sin those who have committed only one mortal sin, especially if there is a question of a sin of frailty. Final impenitence would thus be restricted to inveterate sinners. As St. Peter says: “God dealeth patiently for your sake, not willing that anyone should perish, but that all should return to penance.” Hell is the pain of obstinacy.

Here we may dwell on the great promise of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary. We quote Father T. J. Bainvel, S.J., who has made a long study of this question. The promise runs thus: “On Friday, during Holy Communion, our Lord spoke these words to his unworthy slave, if she does not deceive herself; ‘I promise thee, in the excessive mercy of My heart, that its omnipotent love will accord to all those who shall receive Communion on nine successive First Fridays the grace of final penance. They shall not die in disfavor with God, nor without the sacraments, since My divine heart is their assured refuge in this last moment.’”

Father Bainvel adds these words: “The promise is absolute, supposing only that the Communions have been made and have been well made. The grace promised is not the grace of perseverance in good throughout life, nor the reception of the last sacraments under every hypothesis, but that perseverance which brings with it penance, and the last sacraments so far as they are necessary.” This promise is addressed to sinners more directly than to pious souls. The promise supposes that the grace of making good Communions on nine successive First Fridays is a gift reserved to the elect. If they are in sin, they will repent before they die.[18]


As we conclude this series on the four last things, I want us to take a moment and realize the gravity of our lives, as well as God’s goodness towards man in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without his sacrifice on the cross, this opportunity for forgiveness would not be possible at this moment. Let us this Advent season give thanks to God for what He has done, and strive by his grace to become the saints we are called to be.


[1] Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Life Everlasting (TAN: 1952), 97-98.

[2] Notice the theological note: “De Fide” means – of the faith – explicit in Scripture, and Tradition, may also be explicitly defined by the highest Church authority. Theological Sensor: denial of any of these truths is the mortal sin of heresy.

[3] Ibid., 98.

[4] Ibid.

[5] All References to Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma come from the 1957 edition and use the older numbering system.

[6] Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., 98-99.

[7] Ibid., 99-101.

[8] Ibid., 101-105. Cf. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (TAN, 1954), 480.

[9] Ott., loc. cit.

[10] Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., 105.

[11] Ott. op. cit., 480-481.

[12] Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., 117-125.

[13] Ibid., 126-130.

[14] Ott, op. cit., 481-482.

[15] Garriou-Lagrange, op. cit., 112-116.

[16] Sententia Communis – common teaching – this teaching is implicit in Tradition and is generally accepted by the Theologians, but is technically a free opinion. Theological Censure: It is licit to object to these teachings if and only if there is grave cause. To object to any without grave cause is the mortal sin of temerity

[17] Ott, op. cit., 482.

[18] Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., 131-133.

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